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Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu is not necessarily the first location which springs to mind when people consider visiting the country. But for travellers wanting to experience a slower pace of life and authentic Japanese food to match it, it offers impeccable local ingredients, beautifully-prepared, at very fair price points.
With that combination of factors in mind, it’s surprising that more people don’t enter Kyushu. The capital city of Fukuoka is well-served by domestic and international flights as well as Japan’s peerless shinkansen high speed trains. My trip came with Walk Japan, a company who lead small group walking tours off the beaten track, revealing an even quieter and calmer side of Japan.
Yatai: Fukuoka's Street Food
Fukuoka is quick to reveal its brilliant local food scene and a pretty unique feature of its street food tents called yatai. There are around 150 of these humble stalls, often enclosed with wooden benches seating around ten people, that make for brilliant, social eating experiences. Most have one or two people who cook and serve, both drinks and food, to a mix of locals and occasional visitors. There are rarely, if ever, menus – you just look at the produce laid out or what others are eating. The truth is, you can’t go wrong.
My first stall bought a bowl of the sensational local tripe stew called motsunabe. Perfect on a chilly evening, the hot pot of soup is made from miso and soy, with bonito and konbu seaweed adding real depth of flavour and umami hits alongside the tripe and multiple vegetables including leeks and cabbage.
The second was the tempting waft of yakitori chicken being grilled over binchotan charcoal. Every imaginable cut was on offer, with friendly local office workers ensuring my glass of beer never went empty, despite our language barrier. The people are consistently warm and welcoming and there are few better ways to settle in to Kyushu life.
Hot Spring Cooking
Away from the big city – even if Fukuoka feels very compact by Japanese standards – the countryside is a revelation. This is a part of the country featuring onsen hot springs everywhere, the perfect rest for tired limbs after a long day walking. Some onsen also share a remarkable cooking technique that has existed for thousands of years, whereby local people use the scalding hot vents to steam their food. The suggested timings for food are listed on blackboards, and people bring their own dishes and utensils, picnic style.
Restaurants also occasionally feature this culinary technique, sometimes jokingly called ‘hell cooking’. The town of Beppu has an incredible 3,000 natural hot springs and the onsen are often surrounded by a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse who also lay on incredible kaiseki meals again featuring local produce in countless preparations and small dishes.
The Yanagiya onsen lets people cook their own produce but also serves beautiful local produce such as fish, vegetables and tofu. Being Japan, the presentation is paramount – and perfect.
The Authentic Kyushu's Cuisine
A final word regarding Kyushu’s tiny country villages where more brilliant local produce is served to travellers. The ultimate highlight of many was lunch at a humble café whose name translates as ‘flying monkey tea house’, where local women prepare wholly vegetarian menus.
After a beautiful bento box, they served their delicious local pickled plums, and also made an unusual, delicious local soup with sheets of dumpling, called dango jiru. Made with rice flour, the dumplings almost turned out like pasta. To accompany, their homemade miso, prepared in February and only opened after seven months of maturing.